Striving to be the best

Refreshing look: Artist impression of the campus which will be completed in 2015.

GIVEN that University of Reading (Reading) will be opening its first overseas campus in EduCity@Iskandar, Johor come 2015, vice-chancellor Sir David Bell is excited about the university’s pursuit in attracting the finest students from the South-East Asian region.

“When the university decided to set up its campus here, we were looking at the potential of this region which offers a growing demand for higher education,” says Bell who made a visit to the six hectare university site earlier in September.

“Sometimes, it is necessary to take a risk when embarking on a new business venture.

“I guess that’s the same with higher education. We are going to a place where few have been before, that’s the entrepreneurial spirit of Reading,” he adds.

Reading is joining two other universities from the United Kingdom (UK) which set up campuses in the EduCity — University of Southampton Malaysia Campus and Newcastle University Medicine Malaysia, alongside the Netherlands Maritime Institute of Technology and Raffles University Iskandar.

Historically, Reading has always enjoyed a strong partnership with Malaysia, starting from its programmes conducted with then Taylor’s College (now Taylor’s University).

“We want to see ourselves as a strong player in the higher education sector here. It is a great opportunity for us to contribute towards making Malaysia a regional higher education hub,” says Bell, who was appointed to his position in January.

Pharmacy, chemistry, finance, law and built environment are the programmes that will be offered at University of Reading Malaysia, Bell adds.

“We think these are the subjects of interest to Malaysian students and those from the wider region. These programmes will be further enhanced and supplemented by various research activities that the university is actively involved in.

“As Reading’s strength lies in food security, meteorology and cardiovascular and metabolic research, we will also be bringing in these programmes later on,” says Bell.

The idea for an overseas campus was established in 2008, and it will be precisely a decade later that the first batch of students from the Malaysian campus is expected to graduate in 2018.

“Looking across the 10-year horizon, it can be quite an interesting period for the development of higher education.

“You can do something for short-term effects but if you want to make big changes in higher education, you have to think long term. This is what we are trying to do,” says Bell.

Measure for measure

As with any newly set up higher education institution, Bell says the first achievement measure of its Malaysian campus would be its success in recruiting students and their performance.

“Students are the universities’ best ambassadors whether the institutions are newly established or not.

“A good way of building up a university’s reputation is by making sure that its first students are given a great learning experience,” says Bell.

In this age of social media, word spreads fast if the university is up to mark.

In jest, Bell says that this could also lead to universities with below-par performance to lose its reputation quickly.

“Reading has a lot to offer in terms of quality. From the way the campus and courses are structured to our active engagement in research collaborations, I think all of these will contribute towards building up our reputation,” says Bell.

Nevertheless, for established universities, rankings are more often than not used to evaluate one institution against the other.

The University of Reading in the UK is included in the top 200 universities list by the Times Higher Education World University Rankings released this year.

To Bell, university rankings matter deeply because it gives a snapshot, albeit not the whole story but a bigger picture in the university’s performance and how it is perceived by students and other institutions.

“Even if some universities want to ignore rankings, they can’t possibly do that as students are looking at it.

“When we are talking to students from around the world, we find that they are very well-informed about rankings,” says Bell.

He adds that rankings force universities to think carefully on its future directions.

“I don’t think any university can afford to be complacent. In the expansion of Reading, we want to recruit the best students and staff besides creating a lively research culture in the faculties,” says Bell.

On the other hand, he says the higher education sector in the UK is becoming increasingly transparent with an explosion of data being published on student satisfaction and the cost involved in the management of a university.

In the National Student Survey results released recently, Reading scored 88% in student satisfaction.

“Interestingly, higher education is often considered as one of UK’s best exports. With frequent academic citations and favourable perception from students, universities in the UK punch its weight in the global higher education scene,” says Bell.

Strength to strength

Currently, the University of Reading Malaysia is offering pre-sessional English language and executive education programmes in its offices in Johor Baru while waiting for the completion of the campus in 2015.

Bell believes that the development of the universities in the EduCity will bring about wider economic benefits to the Iskandar region.

“With the arrival of the universities, there will be many job opportunities.

“Furthermore, we should not underestimate the economic benefits reaped from students who spend money here, apart from returns gained in tourism, residential and business exploits,” says Bell.

With such optimism on the growth of the Reading campus in Malaysia, Bell has already set his sight on the second phase of development.

“While we are introducing programmes which are likely to be popular with students in the early stage, we do not rule out offering Arts and Humanities courses in the days ahead,” says Bell.

He reveals that visiting academics from the UK were quite intrigued by the huge potential in the demand for the Psychology programme here.

“The other possibility that we are looking at is languages. We hope to focus on developing multilingualism in the university,” says Bell.

Based on the experience of the British education system, he says many people come to realise that it can be a real disadvantage if English is the only language that students are familiar with.

“When students graduate and enter the international business world, it is often that those with similar qualifications here stand a better chance of getting the job because they are fluent in more than one language.

“This is definitely an area of interest that we want to tap into for the campus in Malaysia,” says Bell.

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